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Patient Resilience

August 15, 2012

In my last post, I reflected on the difference between patience as a strategic virtue and more conventional notions of persistence and perseverance. This week, I want to raise some questions about how the notion of patience fits with the concept of resilience.

Among most disciplines with well established notions or frameworks for assessing resilience — notably engineering and psychology — resilience is expressed in terms of the ability of an individual or system to bounce back or recover an acceptable, if not normal, level of functionality after experiencing a challenge, particularly a challenge that exceeds its capacity to resist or deflect harm. The capacity of any one individual or system to exhibit such characteristics is most often measured in terms of the time required to regain the stated level of functionality after experiencing a harmful event.

Time is also important to the notion of patience, but in a different way. This begs a question: Can one be patient and resilient at the same time? Put another way, does resilience require some degree of impatience if not a sense of urgency?

Homeland security and emergency management practitioners, particularly those working in government, are expected to demonstrate measurable results. But we know not everything that can be measured is meaningful and many things that are meaningful can be difficult to measure. Is this the case when it comes to assessing the relationship between patience and resilience? How can we avoid the potential trap of focusing on time as a measurement, especially if it turns out not to be all that meaningful?

In my experience, the rush to advance from response to recovery and then through a recovery process holds many perils. Not the least of these is the sense that people have a say in the process, which lends democratic legitimacy to decisions the group must make or live with long-term. Even if the community has a well-established consensus about recovery priorities, a rush to or through recovery by some can leave others struggling to keep up despite the fact that their recovery process is proceeding at an entirely reasonable pace.

This suggests that any meaningful assessment of recovery and resilience requires consideration of what makes each individual or community’s adaptive journey unique. The question is not how fast but how well they move through the process of adaptation. If time matters at all, the question should not be how fast an individual or group adapts but whether they adapt fast enough to avoid suffering further adverse consequences.

What adaptive behaviors should we expect to observe then if we are to gain an objective appreciation of resilience and recovery progress? This seems a simple enough question, but again, each individual or group will have different answers. Therefore, it seems logical to look for frameworks that can help us with the assessment.

The best framework that comes to mind for making such an assessment is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Herein lies a problem, though. Adaptation is at its core a form of learning. That means every step we take to meet even the most basic needs, will inform, shape and ultimately fulfill higher needs.

This may help explain the phenomena of emergent leadership and self-organizing teams that we often witness after disasters. Those who have successfully mitigated their exposure or prepared to meet their basic needs are better equipped to help others. The ability to offer assistance has the immediate effect of redefining associations, rearranging priorities and redrawing boundaries that separate communities. Emergent leadership helps provide a sense of safety and security by giving direction and purpose to the response. It also helps give individuals a sense of belonging by defining them as members of groups they might not previously have seen themselves a part of or which did not previously exist. The creation of these new ad hoc communities in the immediate aftermath of disaster provides opportunities for self-actualization as individuals rise above their circumstances and the limitations imposed on them by forces beyond their control to bring a sense of order to the chaos they see around them.

Here’s where things get really complicated, though. The euphoria that accompanies a surge in the immediate aftermath of a disaster can soon fade as the harsh reality of the situation sinks in. The sloping sides of Maslow’s pyramid make it hard to stay on top for very long.

The pain and suffering that accompanies the Sisyphean struggle to regain a sense of normalcy can make it awfully difficult for us to appreciate the value of the struggle itself. But this experience and the mindset that produces it is the very essence of patience and resilience.

If we see pushing that rock uphill time and again as ultimately futile, then that’s what it is. On the other hand, if pushing the rock uphill is how we earn our way, how we prove our mettle, how we encourage others to persevere or how we give our life purpose for awhile, then it can mean much more than any one of us can fully appreciate.

For this reason, I prefer to see patience as an essential element of resilience. Those willing and able to exercise patience inspire others not to accept the tragedy or inevitability of their circumstances, but rather to make the most of them. This is especially, if not profoundly, true when the end does not yield rewards greater than the compensation expected from the means.

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